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May 11, 2009

Prospectus Today

Report from Camden Yards

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm a little late getting to my report from Camden Yards. A one-day trip stretched into two, and that second day was dominated by news having nothing to do with the good things about baseball, but rather the latest chapter in the game's book of steroid stories.

Even a day spent talking more about HCG than OBP couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for another night at the ballpark, however. Thanks to Ned Rice of the Orioles, I was able to attend a sort-of makeup game after Wednesday night's rain-marred fiasco. The Twins and Orioles got in an official game that night, but they finished it long after I was gone, getting in just a tick over the required five innings for the contest to count. The second night was a much different experience, as the skies mostly cleared, the evening was shirt-sleeves-and-ice-cream pleasant, and the ballgame was an exciting one.

As I wrote last week, Camden Yards doesn't have quite the impact today as it would have had back in 1992 when it opened. We've seen many HOK and HOK-inspired parks in its wake, and all of them share similar features. The improvement in the overall experience, as compared to the generation of multi-purpose stadiums that preceded this one, is considerable. Whether you're a fan who only needs baseball at a ballpark to be happy, or one who goes only because his friends have an extra ticket and he has nothing else planned, you can appreciate more space, more food options, nicer views, greater access to information via scoreboards, and all of the other touches that made Camden Yards such a rollicking success.

I was a bit surprised to see just how few people shared in the experience. Years of noncompetitive baseball teams appear to have crippled demand for Orioles tickets, even on a night with good weather. Watching more games on TV over the weekend, it seemed that even the presence of the Yankees, who usually bring in the Acela crowd, wasn't enough to fill the place. That's disappointing, because Baltimore is a very good baseball city, and in the mid-'90s, when the Orioles were last successful, there weren't very many better baseball experiences.

After a decade in the wilderness, the Orioles are building back to that kind of atmosphere. Some of the reasons for optimism were on display Thursday night, most notably Adam Jones, who was strong in the field on an 0-for-4 night. Jones also had what can be described as a "good strikeout" in the fifth, working Glen Perkins for 10 pitches after starting out 0-2, staying back on a couple of tough pitches along the way and fighting off others. It's early, of course, and Jones' contact rate is unchanged compared to last season, but his results on contact, his walk rate, and his K/BB are all much better, and he's shown the jump in power that sometimes happens at the age of 23. I saw nothing in my trip to push me off of his bandwagon.

Jones and Nick Markakis are in Baltimore now, and will be for some time to come. They alone are worth the price of admission. When you look at the Orioles, though, the fact is that most of their championship core hasn't arrived yet. Matt Wieters, already a legend, has yet to make his major league debut. Of the current crop of Orioles starters, only Koji Uehara is likely to be around two years from now. The rotation then-let's say Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, a newly healthy Troy Patton, and Uehara-is lined up to be one of the best young groups in the game, and that's without mentioning Brandon Erbe or David Hernandez or who the Orioles might take with high picks in the next two drafts. (There's a real need for infielders, especially a long-term solution at shortstop.) The Orioles are now about where the Rangers were two years ago, and while they don't have a Mark Teixeira to trade to accelerate the process-their decision to lock up Brian Roberts' eventual decline cut off that path to adding talent-there's enough here to envision a .500 finish in 2010 and contention in 2011 and beyond. An Orioles team filling Camden Yards and pushing for postseason berths will be a very good thing for baseball; as much fun as it was to watch a game in a nearly empty Camden Yards (and at that, one with a surprising number of Twins backers), I can only imagine what it will be like full and loud.

Other notes from the trip:

  • Not to go all Klaw here, but Boog Powell's barbecue stand is worth the trip. I prefer my 'cue rubbed, not heavily sauced; the latter approach I feel tends to hide sub-standard meat. Boog's beef sandwich comes with no sauce at all, sliced thin but not so thin as to be cold cuts, spiced well, and served on a roll so soft that I half expect it to show up this summer as a power forward in Euroleague. There are apparently sauce packets available, which I didn't realize until seeing someone else defiling their sandwich with one later. I hadn't eaten this well at a ballpark in some time; my decision to try the Italian sausages instead of heading back to Boog's on Thursday was inexplicably dumb, the epicurean equivalent of choosing your third-best reliever to pitch in a huge spot just because it's the seventh inning and not the ninth.

  • Thursday night's game was entertaining, as the Twins fought back from early 2-1 and 4-2 deficits to tie the game in the seventh, as Dave Trembley showed why the 2011 Orioles, that future contending edition, will probably be managed by someone else. With four left-handed batters and switch-hitting Matt Tolbert scheduled to bat-the top five guys in the Twins' lineup-Trembley called on Chris Ray to start the inning rather than Jamie Walker. After the Twins had tied the game, Trembley tabbed Walker to pitch to Jason Kubel to escape a jam. It was confusing, to say the least; if Ron Gardenhire is going to set his lineup to encourage lots of Jamie Walker, you have to punish him for that. Allowing Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau to tie the game against a right-handed reliever is malpractice. Trembley may be the guy to bring along young players, but once the wins and losses mean something, the Orioles, like the Brewers before them and the Rangers a year from now, will need someone better at the Xs and Os.

  • It's a little silly to get overly excited about middle relievers, especially ones who give up three hits and get tagged with the loss. With that said, Jose Mijares can pitch, and is tough enough on right-handers, hiding the ball and getting his fastball into the mid-90s at times, to be a lot more than a specialist. The Venezuelan went from Triple-A to the only reliable middle man on the roster last September, and his two losses last week not withstanding, he's the second-best reliever on the roster now. The Twins, who once had deep, effective bullpens, now struggle to get to Joe Nathan. Mijares will help fill a hole for them, and could eventually take over from Nathan as the team's closer.

I don't think of myself as someone who's seen a lot of ballparks, but I counted it up and I'm up to 16 current ones and five defunct ones, plus a scattering of minor league parks and spring-training venues. I have to say that Camden Yards is in the top quartile of experiences, and I look forward to getting back to it soon.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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